Reading Rights

Magdalena Waz

For this week, I think I would like to change the title of my column from “Reading Rights” to “Reading and Writing Rights” – or “Reading Writes,” to make the pun painfully obvious. I want to do this because we’ve spent some time in my creative writing class talking about the reader’s appetite and how the writer’s job is to whet that appetite and then satisfy it.
I find it hard to believe that this is how writing should function because it places emphasis on writing as a product and not as an art form. Let us take, for example, an imaginary story about a blustery afternoon turning deadly when a tree limb lands on top of a dorm, crashes through the roof and kills a young student writing a great novel.
In the first sentence, we are given all of this information. Do we keep reading? We already have the answers to our who, what, when and where. Do we care about why? The tree limb killed the girl. It doesn’t matter that there was a large low-pressure system moving through the middle section of the country.
If we say that we wouldn’t read on, we privilege the plot over the language or the way that this information is presented to us. What if we are given none of the information in the first sentence? All we know is that “Polly opened her eyes after a long nap.” If we say that we wouldn’t read on, we mark Polly as boring unless she is dying or about to die.
Granted, this is a simplistic example and the opposite of a plot-driven story; a glut of details that don’t amount to anything in the end sounds just as unappealing. Described in a more flattering light, these types of stories might be called character sketches or stories about the psychological oddities of any number of people.
But pick up Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons” and “The DaVinci Code” and you will find two books so rigidly plotted that chapter one of the first book and chapter one of the second book accomplish the same things. We are introduced to the murder plot, then we are introduced to the murderer, then we are introduced to the main character. And we want to find out more. I clearly did because I read them both and quickly.
I don’t think that is art, though. The pleasure of reading shouldn’t rest on our being given some piece of information to mull over and waiting to be proven either right or wrong. It’s just a nice and quick way to get people to turn pages, to get people to buy books and to get those books adapted into Hollywood movies.
In an interview with the advanced fiction class last winter term, Christopher Coake, a writer who won a PEN literary award in 2006, was asked about endings to stories and when one should cut them off. In response, Coake said that the reader always thinks they need more information, more resolution, more closure, but that giving the reader what he or she wants does not always make for the most compelling story – nor does it guarantee success. In other words, concerning oneself with the appetites of the reader can sometimes lead to a product less satisfying than one in its original – though slightly rough around the edges – form.
The goal of a clever, successful and above all good writer, I am told, is to present satisfying details to a reader in a cloaked way. The art is making a plot as bulky as any of Dan Brown’s disappear within the details. But this striking a balance can easily come at the expense of things like language and even innovation. It makes more sense, in a time of reading malaise, to push the boundaries of what readers will accept as narrative than to continue to present the same artfully disguised story to give us the thrills we think we desire, but with which we are clearly bored.